It was a year of expectancy. When 2002 began, pilgrimages to Ground Zero were still in progress -- along with a grim cleanup. We waited for Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden to go the way of the passenger pigeon and the Taliban -- all the while dreading the next scourge of terror. We waited for President Bush to flout the UN and bomb Baghdad. We waited for the Dow to bottom out and the economy to bounce back. And we're still waiting.

But while Wall Street investors hedged and corporations trimmed their payrolls, Broadway producers reached out to their shell-shocked audience. Theatergoers responded positively to discounted ticket prices last winter -- and to a bumper crop of imaginative new musicals this fall.
We weren't immune to layoffs down here in Charlotte. Undaunted, most of our performing arts companies weren't clinging to a bunker mentality. Without jubilant fanfare, the Arts & Science Council slightly surpassed their 2001 fundraising exploits. The philistinism of Charlotte's infamous Gang of Five receded further into the past.
Grabbing an eager audience's attention, two established pillars in the local theater firmament made bold moves. Children's Theater elevated our own Alan Poindexter to the position of artistic director after a prolonged nationwide search. As the groundbreaking ceremonies marked the future spot where a pioneering partnership will blossom between Children's Theater and our award-winning library, the right leadership was newly planted at the Morehead Street fantasy palace.

Then the board at Charlotte Rep, in a more markedly bizarre ceremony, discharged the company's founder, Steve Umberger. In his stead, in a newly-created position of producing artistic director, Michael Bush came back to his hometown after nearly two decades with the prestigious Manhattan Theater Club. The switch was radical. New leader, new logo, new production philosophy. Greater expectations.
Suddenly there were more familiar Broadway names in Rep's season brochure -- and dramatically fewer shows in the annual subscription. Presumably, larger budgets for each show -- and longer runs -- would pay off in better quality and attendance.

But not instantly. Penny Fuller's presence didn't suddenly elevate The Glass Menagerie above all that Rep had achieved in the previous 25 years. Nor did the fine revival of M. Butterfly relieve the suspicion, among local theater pros, that Charlotte had been kicked out of the Rep along with Umberger. The first Bush season at Rep, like the current Bush presidency, has had an awkward transition and some wobbly first steps. At one point, two Rep productions were running at two different venues, a dubious first. Already this year, Rep has stopped stumbling over itself, and Charlotte is reaping the benefits of the company's new mission.
Onstage, the end of the Umberger Era was no shabby spectacle, either. His valedictory effort, Proof, was a gem, preceded by our Show of the Year: Moliere's The Misanthrope, hilariously updated and reimagined. Before we knew it, Umberger was back with a spanking new company and a dusted-off reprise of Shirley Valentine starring his wife, Rebecca Koon.

Meanwhile, Charlotte's new off-Broadway coalition kept chugging along into its second season, enfolding Tiny Ninja Shakespeare -- and skimpy negligee Shakespeare -- into the funky scene up in NoDa. What galvanized the season was the nifty confluence of all the coalition members last January, the Chickspeare/BareBones co-production of Paula Vogel's Desdemona at the Off-Tryon Theater Company. Houses were packed and audiences were pumped.

So was Charlotte's burgeoning fringe theater movement. The young visionaries of The Farm kicked off the summer season with a brief homegrown production staged inside a barbed-wire enclosure. By fall, Michael Simmons' Victory Theater enterprise had returned from its dalliance in Matthews, joining Farm in forming the core of the new Warehouse Theater scene uptown at the Hart-Witzen Gallery. Carver Johns branched away from Off-Tryon and, together with fiancee Serena Ruden and Alan Nelson, formed innerVisions on 25th Street. And BareBones Theater Group, after years of time-sharing at Off-Tryon and the Afro-Am Cultural Center, set its sights on SouthEnd. During December, they marched across the tracks of Tremont Avenue and transformed Carolina Cutlery into the SouthEnd Performing Arts Center.

Desdemona, and the all-woman staged reading of Othello that accompanied it, underscored the growing prominence of women on the local scene. Look around on your Google search engine, and not much turns up outside New York for "women's theater groups" -- just 45 hits. So our Chickspeare is something of a rare bird in this hemisphere, and the grassroots V-Day presentation of The Vagina Monologues last February affirmed that there's plentiful talent to sustain an all-female troupe. With an enthusiastic audience to boot.

Look around some more. Three women prowl the theater beat at the Observer. Another jumped off the sinking Leader newspaper to form the struggling new Charlotte Theater monthly magazine. They're crawling all over the Artsavant website. It's an estrogen conspiracy!

OK, it's not. But it's certainly a unique quality to be prized when taking stock of Charlotte's theater scene. Not coincidentally, women swept the top honors in our Theaterperson of the Year category for the second time in the history of CL's awards. When Candace Sorensen and Daina Giesler teamed together at Theater Charlotte to win the prize for their exploits of 1999, gender didn't seem relevant. Now with April Jones becoming the first woman to win our Theaterperson award more than once -- and Julie Janorschke emerging into the spotlight -- a threshold has been crossed. And theater women of Charlotte have done it under their own power.

Speaking of Theater Charlotte, they had a pretty good 2002, thank you, logging one of our Top 10 slots for the second straight year. Yes, they had to steal a boatload of CPCC Summer Theater talent to do it, but that's show biz. If CP doesn't bounce back to pre-eminence in musical productions this year, our top musical prize won't be returning to Theater Charlotte by default. While 2002 turned out to be a year that local companies weren't very inclined to present musicals, 2003 has already begun with a more insistent beat. Rep returned to the musical fray last month with Let Me Sing, and Actor's Theater is coming back with Hedwig and the Angry Inch after Memorial Day.

All in all, we're trending toward freedom of expression, inclusion and empowerment. The bold administrative moves at Rep and Children's Theater said it clearly enough, and the upcoming return of Angels in America to Davidson College underscores the point. Fear of the Queen City's homegrown homophobes is as extinct as the Taliban.

Here are CL's 16th Annual Charlotte Theater Awards:

When she accepted her first Theaterperson of the Year Award two years ago, April Jones promised us that her quests for personal growth and artistic excellence were just beginning. Regaining the crown in 2002, she has delivered royally. Onstage in the title role of The Crane Wife, she was Children's Theater's most compelling leading lady. Behind the scenes, Jones nearly duplicated the directorial exploits of her breakout year of 2000, putting her stamp on two of last year's best shows, Children's Theater's Jungalbook [sic] and Actor's Theater's Fuddy Meers.

And as promised, she grew. While her reading of Othello last January fell far short of Olivier's Moor, April's audacity was an inspiration. That audacity subsequently paid off when she unveiled her first dramatic script at the Afro-American Cultural Center in October. Even in workshop form, Negras Eros was a clear winner in our Best Original Play category. It's opening at Afro-Am this week -- and proving why.

As the BareBones Theater Group development director, as a prime architect of the Off-Broadway marketing coalition up in NoDa, and as one of the most gifted comediennes on the Charlotte stage scene, Julie Janorschke was a strong contender for Theaterperson honors in 2001. She was even more involved -- and more triumphant -- last year. Janorschke was the visionary who first proposed Desdemona as a BareBones project, and she was the director when the Paula Vogel comedy became a landmark co-production with Chickspeare -- earning honors as the Chix' best effort ever and CL's Theater Event of the Year.

The fleshy femme also had a banner year onstage. Under April Jones's direction, Janorschke was the tough traffic trooper in Fuddy Meers, a hoot to boot. Then in arguably the funniest comedy of 2002, BareBones' production of Rich Orloff's Someone's Knocking, Janorschke was the intrepid housewife fearlessly breaking away from her kitchen -- and a psycho husband -- to pursue the wild hypothesis that life is worth living. That performance as Gladys was the upset winner in the hotly contested Best Comedy Actress race, elevating Janorschke to glory.

When April Jones made her directing debut for Actor's Theater with the zany amnesia comedy, Fuddy Meers, the hookup between Theaterperson of the Year and then-reigning Theater Company of Year achieved predictably fine results. Even more impressive was the fresh magic Jones worked on Children's Theater's Jungalbook, transforming Kipling's idyll into a gripping fable that reminded us of the evolution of mankind and our sorry stewardship of the planet. Every movement of every jungle beast was carefully premeditated, and every child and adult performer, down to the lowliest turtle, grasped Jones's vision and made it living flesh.

Stealing scenes in last January's Desdemona as the sluttish Bianca, Nicia Carla broke quickly from the gate in the race for CL's top acting honor. She kept the lead with a Malvolio, in Chickspeare's Twelfth Night, that was unsurpassed for starchy Puritanical hilarity. Then returning to her customary gig as Tarradiddle Players' commedia diva, Carla cemented her prize in multiple supporting gems at Children's Theater in Puss in Boots. Easily the best set of comedy performances by any Charlotte actress in a year of plenty.

Mark Scarboro scores a come-from-behind victory, pulling into the lead with his chillingly natural portrayal of both gay-bashing murderers in the fine Actor's Theater production of The Laramie Project. That completed a rogues' gallery that is probably unparalleled in Charlotte theater history. As the bullying bloodthirsty tiger Sherakhan, Scarboro's debut at Children's Theater in Jungalbook was sensational, his confrontations with Alan Poindexter one of the year's sizzling acting summits.
Scarboro's comedy exploits were somewhat less chilling. He was the volatile Cosmo in BareBones' enigmatic Pitchfork Disney -- and our heroine's unpredictable husband in Fuddy Meers. Every show Scarboro appeared in crackled with electricity, largely his.

Over 300 years ago, Moliere asked, "What, in this shallow age, is not debased?" Under Randell Haynes's brilliant direction, Charlotte Rep's revival of The Misanthrope trained the Frenchman's merciless monocle on contemporary Charlotte. The "bold rascal" suing Alceste was none other than George Shinn, splashed across multiple video screens in a high-tech environment that meshed rapping fops with laptops. Right on cue, when Alceste's scorn turned to crooked politicians and influence peddlers, Sue Myrick's mug pop-ped into view. Graham Smith headed a superb cast, including Tamara Scott, Josh Gaffga, and Katherine Harrison. Bob Croghan's hilarious costume designs sometimes upstaged them all.

With less than 10 percent of the big boys' budgetary resources, BareBones Theater Group was a miracle of industry, consistency and overachievement. Beginning with the landmark Desdemona collaboration, BBTG perfectly embodied its mission of producing theater that makes you think. The apocalyptic Pitchfork Disney sometimes made you scratch your head while you sat there thinking, packaging some of the weirdest imagery of the year. The BareBones production of Tony Kushner's The Illusion brought us some of the most sweeping and profound monologues of the year -- and darker, more seductive flavors of eye candy.

Best of all the BBTG confections was Someone's Knocking, which made us laugh out loud while we were thinking. All in all, the merry band of Boners dominated the comedy category, presenting four of the seven nominees for best production. Taking their cue from the Warehouse Theater ambience at Hart-Witzen, BareBones has designed their SouthEnd Performing Arts Center as a venue that includes theater as part of a larger mix -- including visual arts and cabaret in a funky setting that welcomes you with coffee tables and upside-down lamps.
If you've peeped in on SPAC at their inaugural fundraiser or their suite of five plays written and produced in a 24-hour frenzy, you've already seen that the remodeling work is done right. BareBones even postponed their first theater production at the new venue until this week -- after the announcement of the Loaf Awards. Do these guys know what they're doing or what?

Key Subjects: 
Charlotte, North Carolina; Creative Loafing, Desdemona, Othello, Chickspeare, Fuddy Mears
Perry Tannenbaum
COMEDIES Best Comedy: The Misanthrope - Charlotte Rep Best Actress: Julie Janorschke - Someone's Knocking (Gladys) Best Actor: Graham Smith - The Misanthrope (Alceste) Best Director: Randell Haynes - The Misanthrope Best Supporting Actress: Nicia Carla - Desdemona (Bianca), Twelfth Night (Malvolio) Best Supporting Actor: Josh Gaffga - The Misanthrope (Oronte) DRAMAS Best Drama: The Laramie Project - Actor's Theater Best Actress: Sarah McCafrey - Proof (Catherine) Best Actor: Joe LaRue - M. Butterfly (Song Liling) Best Director: April Jones - Jungalbook Best Choreographer: Delia Neil - The Crane Wife Best Supporting Actress: Caitlin Muelder - The Glass Menagerie (Laura Wingfield) Best Supporting Actor: Mark Scarboro - Jungalbook (Sherakhan), The Laramie Project (Aaron McKinney, Russell Henderson, others) Best Cameo Appearance: Kimberly Watson Brooks - The Vagina Monologues ("Little Coochie Snorcher"), Jungalbook (Kaa) MUSICALS Best Musical: Show Boat - Theater Charlotte Best Actress: Susan Roberts Knowlson - Show Boat (Magnolia Hawks) Best Actor: Patrick Ratchford - Oklahoma! (Curly) Best Director: Ron Chisholm - Show Boat Best Conductor/Music Director: Bill Congdon - Oklahoma!, The Fantasticks Best Supporting Actress: Pat Heiss - Show Boat (Parthy Ann Hawkes) Best Supporting Actor: James K. Flynn - The Fantasticks (Hucklebee) THEATERCRAFTS Best Lighting Designer: Dawn Chiang - M. Butterfly Best Sound Designer: Gary Sivak - And Then They Came for Me, The Canterville Ghost Best Set Designer: Joseph Gardner - The Diary of Anne Frank Best Costume Designer: Johann Stegmeir - The Crane Wife Special Technical Effects: Kevin Raper - The Canterville Ghost (Spinning Paintings, Glowing Armor and Blood Stains, Moon Projections, etc.) BEST ORIGINAL SHOW Negras Eros by April Jones - Afro-American Cultural Center. BEST ONE-PERSON SHOW: Scott Helm in Fully Committed - Charlotte Rep COLLEGE/TEEN PRODUCTIONS Best Show: The Diary of Anne Frank - Davidson College Best Actress: Beth Gardner - The Diary of Anne Frank (Anne Frank) Best Actor: Jacob Pinion - Quiz Show (Herb Stempel) NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR Joseph Baez - A Midsummer Night's Dream (Francis Flute/Choreography), Tales of Sex and Horror from the Bible (Abel), Much Ado About Nothing (Claudio/Choreography) THEATER EVENT OF THE YEAR Desdemona/Othello "Othello-thon" - Chickspeare/BareBones Theater Group. SWEET 16 FOR 2002 1. The Misanthrope - Charlotte Rep 2. The Laramie Project - Actor's Theater 3. M. Butterfly - Charlotte Rep/Syracuse Stage 4. Fuddy Meers - Actor's Theater 5. Proof - Charlotte Rep 6. Someone's Knocking - BareBones Theater Group 7. The Crane Wife - Children's Theater 8. The Glass Menagerie - Charlotte Rep 9. Show Boat - Theater Charlotte 10. The Illusion - BareBones Theater Group 11. Fully Committed - Charlotte Rep 12. Jungalbook - Children's Theater 13. Desdemona - Chickspeare/BareBones Theater Group 14. Oklahoma! - CPCC Summer Theater 15. Shirley Valentine - Playworks/ SummerStage 16. The Fantasticks - CPCC Theater DA BOMBS 1. Imitation of Life - Afro-American Children's Theater 2. Heisman: The Musical - Garland Atkins @ Queens University 3. The Maids - The Farm 4. A Thurber Carnival - Theater Charlotte 5. Picnic - CPCC Theater [END]
February 2003
Creative Loafing's 2002 Theater Awards